Mon
Jan 3 2011 1:24pm

Shaken down so well: Patrick O’Brian’s The Thirteen Gun Salute

The Thirteen Gun Salute by Patrick O’BrianThe Thirteen Gun Salute is the thirteenth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, and it’s one of my favourites. It’s here we begin the great voyage out of time which will not be completed until the beginning of The Commodore in five books time. If you can start anywhere, you can start here, but I still think it’s best to begin at the beginning—starting here will give you spoilers for things earlier in the series that it’s better to come to at their own pace. But this certainly begins a sequence and would be a possible beginning.

Spoilers below.

This isn’t a particularly long book, but there’s a remarkable amount in it. It begins in a traditional way for the series, a little while after the previous volume and with a departure. The Surprise leaves Shelmerston for Peru and Chile. We’re going to get there too, and in  Surprise, but not in this book. Unusually, after the scene of departure, the action backs up to explain why they have put to sea. Jack is not yet reinstated, Wray and Ledward are still being malevolent, Jack has been indiscreet and would be better at sea. They make it as far as Lisbon, where Sir Joseph Blaine himself intercepts them, explains that their enemies have caused rumours of their mission that would prevent it, reinstates Jack in the Navy and assigns him to Diane, the ship the Surprises cut out in The Letter of Marque. They agree to meet up with Surprise, which will sail under Pullings, and carry out their original mission later.

Meanwhile, the Diane sets off to take an envoy to Borneo. There’s a way in which the rest of the book can be seen as a reprise of H.M.S. Surprise in a different key. The main action is a commission to take an envoy to the Far East, and the envoy dies on a distant island. Making the comparison shows how much O’Brian has grown as a writer in the ten books, and ten years, since. Everyone is fully characterised here and has their own agenda. Fox and Stanhope are not just very different people, they are at different levels of complexity. Fox is obnoxious and bitter. We don’t have the romantic complications—Jack and Stephen seem thoroughly settled with their wives for a change.

There’s some of the best wildlife in the book, when Stephen visits a Buddhist mountaintop shrine and holds hands with an orangutan. There’s also the absolutely shuddersome scene where Wray and Ledward, having been discovered and disgraced and now openly working for the French, are not only killed but dissected by Stephen. A European spleen—ick. The first time I read this I wasn’t sure I wanted to know Stephen any more. Dissecting people one has played cards with seems very cold-blooded. And there is that side of Stephen and there always has been, lovable as he is.

The book ends with Fox’s mission successfully completed, but follows that with a shipwreck, so the final scene is of Jack and the Dianes on a desolate island planning to build a schooner out of the wreckage of the Diane. This isn’t a happy ending by any measure, but it’s a surprisingly satisfying one. It’s one of the best shipwrecks in the series. Indeed, everything in this book shows O’Brian at the top of his powers, dealing with long threads of plot that stretch forward and back, and showing us a new part of the world with Stephen’s fascination with the fauna and Jack’s with the sea and the people. There’s a lovely scene here where Jack lends money to Christy-Palliere’s nephew which shows very well who is an enemy and who isn’t—Napoleon is, and Wray and Ledward are, the French in general can be friends.

The first time I read it, I had read books set further ahead but could not get hold of The Nutmeg of Consolation, so I found the shipwrecked ending very much a cliffhanger and spent a long time trying to work out how matters could have got from here to the beginning of Clarissa Oakes. I was completely wrong, of course. I’m generally good at predicting plot, but O’Brian fools me every time. Indeed, because of the anxiety about what can happen O’Brian is a writer I far prefer re-reading to reading for the first time.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out on January 18th, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Re-reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series: ‹ previous | index | next ›
15 comments
Sylvia Sotomayor
1. terjemar
Sometimes, when I do not have the time and inclination to reread all of the series, I simply start here and read through The Wine-Dark Sea. And sometimes that is all I need and sometimes I then have to go back and read everything else.

And the wildlife is indeed wonderful! It is that part above all that makes me wish I could travel back to the nineteenth century (or even earlier) and see these things for myself.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Terjemar: I have occasionally thought of doing just that, when I want some Jack and Stephen and don't want to dedicate the next three weeks to them. I may try that next time.
a-j
3. a-j
Stephen cold-blooded? After all, between them Ledward and Wray have betrayed his cause to the hated dictator, almost ended his marriage, almost destroyed his best friend's career and raison d'etre. Anatomising them in the name of science seems remarkably restrained to me!
Rich Bennett
4. Neuralnet
you have convinced me to buy this series of books with some christmas gift cards
a-j
5. thomrit
a passion for hornblower led me to dudley pope, alexander kent, dewey lambdin and even bernard cornwall; but i've never been able to get through o'brien...but because david drake acknowledges that stephen and jack inspired mundy and leary, i guess i'll try again.
a-j
6. peachy
Didn't Stephen also shoot Ledward & Wray?

And anyhow, the shooting + dissection combo is still milder than what he did to the French guys in Boston.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Peachy: Yes, but he hadn't played cards with them first.

I know this is an odd line to draw, but there it is. Killing your enemies even to the point of the end of Titus Andronicus, and dissecting them if necessary, OK, but you shouldn't kill and dissect somebody who you know socially.
a-j
8. peachy
I see your point, but I think that when you both cheat and try to avoid your debts, then you forfeit any card-playing related protection. :) (Though I suppose by this reasoning only Wray was vulnerable... on the other hand, I'm not sure that Stephen and Ledward had any direct social connection prior to the gruesome twosome's exposure. So far as I remember, it was only Jack who played cards with both, and he had nothing to do with their elimination.)
Pamela Adams
9. Pam Adams
It is here that we learn just when Stephen became an agent- during Master and Commander.
He turned the pages, running through his first contacts with naval intelligence--dear John Somerville, the fourth generation of a family of Barcelona merchants .... The diary recorded his connexion with Somerville after his earliest days in the Sophie...

I am on the side in favor of Stephen's killing both Wray and Ledward. True, the dissection was going a little far, but it's Van Buren's reaction that really is odd- he's the one cheering for 'an English spleen!' Stephen is actually quite calm about it. Clearly, he has thought about it in advance.

...Stephen said 'What do you feel about those two?'
'Only disgust.'
'You would not kick Ledward, for example?
'No, would you?'
Stephen paused and said 'Kick him? No...on reflection, no.'

That pause in Stephen's last sentence is a great example of O'Brian's art of sneaking in information that you will only really appreciate on the re-read.
a-j
10. a-j
Not being able to kill someone if you've played cards with them would make James Bond's life a tad tricky. And possibly shorter.
a-j
11. HelenS
"...you shouldn't kill and dissect somebody who you know socially."

Because after all, as the pudding said, it's not polite to cut someone you've been introduced to.
David Dyer-Bennet
12. dd-b
I started with Hornblower, and found Alexander Kent (who I did not much like; his protagonist is rather an asshole), and a bit of Parkinson, before stumbling into the O'Brian (rather late; it was a decade or so after the first book came out). I didn't find Dudley Pope until later (liked those a lot). Just finally obtained most of the Parkinson I'm missing.

I still love the Hornblower, but O'Brian are the best of the bunch to me. Pope would come second I think -- he has some of the same depth and richness and complexity.
a-j
13. Michael P.
There are references in The Thirteen Gun Salute to Foxes intense hatred of Ledward and Wray. There are also references to Foxes beautiful rifles and his continual accurate practice with them. Van Buren notes that Ledward and Wray both died of shots from a rifle. So I believe that it is also plausible that Fox might have been the one to shoot them rather than Maturin.
a-j
14. polo
I'm curious about how they found Wray and Ledward. They were in hiding, so someone must have given them up so that Maturin/Fox could get them with their rifles. (Personally, I'm on the side that Fox did it, or maybe them both together). It might not be material to the story but for tales like these, I just like knowing who the informers are.
Jim Hardy
16. JimZipCode
Let me just say that Wray has absolutely earned being dissected, and Stephen is just the man to do it. I found that bit very satisfying. Revenge is best served cold? It does not get any colder than Stephen Maturin dissecting you. When I first read it, my only thought was "Damn."

Fun paragraph: does anyone remember, when we first meet Fox it's over a dinner with Jack & Stephen & Joseph Blaine. Later Stephen observed that Blaine was clearly the greatest man among them, despite his "masterly" strokes of silence. I always read that with a grin, because it seems clear to me that, while writing the scene, O'Brian forgot that Blaine was supposed to be in it! Then he covered himself with this figleaf of dialog.

There is another instance like this elsewhere in the series: when Fanny Wray explains to Stephen why she called Babbington "William" in a prior book. Sure, O'Brian, whatever. :-) It's an interesting little peek into his method; so low-tech compared to other writers who have to maintain huge casts over many volumes. And he's so right, about what's important and what is not.

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